The Right of the People to Govern Themselves: In Defense of Municipal Home Rule

The Right of the People to Govern Themselves: In Defense of Municipal Home Rule

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran recently offered a vigorous defense of his assault on local home rule. He argued that the state Legislature is more representative and less vulnerable to special interest influence than our city and county governments.  Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie and Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge powerfully rebutted that argument. I commend their words to you, dear Reader.

The speaker also asserted that he was honoring our nation’s founders, claiming that “What I was doing was following the founders’ belief in the constitutional hierarchy and trying to say that that power rests in the state government.”

Nonsense.

Local governments are not addressed anywhere in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Why not? Because the focus of the Constitutional Convention was the form and limits of a new national government vis-à-vis the states and the people. The states, because the Confederation that was to be replaced was an agreement among states. The people, because the founders maintained the belief that it is the people who are the ultimate sovereign authority.

The First Congress immediately sought further to protect the rights and authority of the people, drafting 12 amendments, 10 of which became law. The resulting Bill of Rights primarily addresses the protection of the people from the overreach of the national government. The Ninth Amendment, unfamiliar to most of us, is telling in this regard:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

In other words, just because some rights are listed doesn’t mean that those are the only rights people have. If, for example, citizens charter a municipality, the absence of a reference to the right to form local governments in the Constitution should not be construed as denying citizens that right.

Then there’s the 10th Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. (emphasis added)

This protection of states’ authority is important. So, however, is the protection of the people’s authority. States have a degree of sovereignty only to the extent that we, the people, grant it to them. And we can expressly limit their power if we so choose.

And we have.

In 1968, we the people of Florida chose to empower another level of government by constitutional means: municipalities (and, similarly, charter counties).

Municipalities shall have governmental, corporate and proprietary powers to enable them to conduct municipal government, perform municipal functions and render municipal services, and may exercise any power for municipal purposes except as otherwise provided by law.

This language is broadly empowering. It is also a clear and purposeful departure from the language of the Florida Constitution pre-1968, which limited municipalities to the authority expressly granted them by the Legislature.

If one were serious about “following the founders’ belief in the constitutional hierarchy,” one would have to place citizens, not states, at the pinnacle. And we the people of this state have chosen to grant extensive authority to our municipalities.

Respecting our wishes, especially when enshrined in a popularly ratified governing document like the Florida Constitution or a city charter, would truly honor the founders’ vision of constitutional democracy.